WWDC 2014 keynote: Mac OS X

It was amazing

For me, that was easily the second best Apple keynote after the introduction of the iPhone in January 2007. With so many new things introduced, I needed a few days to process everything. And I decided that it would be worthwhile to rewatch the keynote and take extensive notes in the meantime, so that I could present some sort of ‘critical recap’ interspersed with my observations. Considering the length of this, I thought it would be better to split it in two parts — one about Mac OS X Yosemite, the other about iOS 8.

Introduction

Tim Cook is getting a better speaker event after event, keynote after keynote. He looked more confident, more spontaneous and more relaxed than in previous appearances. He looked excited, and not just reciting his speech. Then Craig Federighi — the ebullient senior vice president of Software Engineering — stole the show.

Name is Yosemite. OS X Yosemite.

I hope they’ll get to OS X Weed further down the line, though. That version could have a choice of Dalmatian and Flower Power desktop themes. (I guess only long-time Mac users will get the joke.)

OS X’s new interface

As easily predicted, Yosemite sports a flattened UI. Yosemite is to Mavericks what iOS 7 has been to iOS 6. The funny thing is, I loved iOS 7’s interface from the very first moment Apple showed it, but a lot of people didn’t, and had to get used to it over time. With Yosemite, it seems the reaction is the opposite from what I’ve been reading so far. A lot of people are loving it already, and I guess I’ll have to get used to it, because for the moment it raises a few concerns. There are some things I do like, while for other visual choices the impression I have is that Apple has put stylishness over usability (or at least Apple’s idea of elegance over usability). The impression is that, at this juncture, for Apple the more important thing is that OS X looked visually more like iOS. And that has come with some tradeoffs.

My main concern is the choice of leaving Lucida Grande behind as system font, and opting for a custom Helvetica Neue variant that has been tweaked to be more suitable (and readable) for the task. I’ve already voiced my concerns about this matter here and here and I won’t bore you further. I’m not using a beta version of Yosemite, but according to those who are, it seems that the new font is better in person than on screenshots. I guess I’ll have more to say when using OS X on a daily basis, in a few months.

Another detail I’m not particularly sold on is the insistence on translucency in the new UI — especially in Finder windows. I have the desktop wallpaper set to change every 30 minutes, and some of my favourite wallpapers are rather busy images. I also typically have at least 7-8 Finder windows open at all times (I’m not a big fan of Finder tabs). I really am curious to see how these two things combined with Yosemite’s translucency effects are going to impact the overall clarity of the interface for me. During Federighi’s demos I had the feeling (or maybe he even said it) that Apple sees this translucency as a way to ‘give depth’ to the interface. I think that works better on iOS, though. On a computer’s interface, I think it’s important that the user focuses on what’s in the foreground, instead of continuously getting hints of what is in the background. Federighi, about the translucency effects: “All in all they come together for a gorgeous and more usable version of OS X.” We’ll see, won’t we?

I love the new Dock, though. They finally got rid of the 3D shelf look for a glassy 2D look that I believe really works great on OS X. I also like most of the new icons. I’ll have to get used to the happier, more cartoonish Finder, and I find peculiar that — while the overall trend is towards abstraction — Mail’s icon actually feels even more realistic than on Mavericks and earlier OS X versions. I also love the new Dark Mode for the interface, and I have the feeling it’ll be my default mode.

Notification Centre: It gets a new Today view, like on iOS, and the contents of this Today view can be extended by using widgets from apps downloaded from the App Store. I think this is a brilliant way to make widgets become something actually useful, and makes more sense than having a Dashboard space where widgets are gathered all there a bit isolated. (Yes, in Mavericks you can have Dashboard overlay the screen, but overlaying the whole screen breaks the workflow more starkly than invoking this new Notification Centre.)

Spotlight: The new interface looks a bit like Alfred: now the search field and results window appear more prominently in the centre of the screen, instead of being confined in the sort of interactive menu we’ve seen from Tiger to Mavericks. Search has also been extended, including external results from Bing, Wikipedia, Maps, etc. As it says on Apple’s site, Spotlight now “gives you richer, more interactive previews of your results. So you can read a document, send an email, or make a phone call by clicking a result.” The new Spotlight interface is a modernised version of the good old Show All panel that was first implemented under Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger to then disappear in Leopard, much to my chagrin.

Spotlight Tiger

Spotlight interface on Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger

 

Spotlight Yosemite

Spotlight interface on OS X Yosemite

Of course this new Spotlight is an improvement, especially for people like me who don’t rely on any other third-party app. I hope the new interface behaves like the current Help Viewer — i.e. it remains always on top no matter how many Finder windows and application windows are littering the screen. I also hope it’s Desktop-agnostic, meaning that if I trigger Spotlight on Desktop 4 and then jump to Desktop 1, I should be able to find the Spotlight panel there as well, without having to hunt for it among Desktops and open windows via Mission Control.

Like others said, these more powerful search options in Spotlight, coupled with its instant availability, are an interesting jab at Google — it’s certainly easier to perform quick searches without even opening a browser tab or window, especially if you can readily act on search results (e.g. maps results or movie information).

iCloud Drive: With iCloud Drive, Documents-in-the-Cloud folders are easily accessible in the Finder. You can get contents that are not stored on your Mac, namely documents created on your iOS devices; and you can organise these documents however you want, with folders and tags, and keep them synced across Macs, access them from iOS devices, and even from Windows devices. I really like the direction Apple is (finally) taking iCloud. For how I work with files, this new Dropbox-like approach is certainly a step forward and will make me use iCloud more.

Mail Drop: Mail Drop is an ingenious way to send large email attachments (up to 5 GB). Apple best explains how it works: When you’re signed in to iCloud, Mail Drop lets you send large files like videos, presentations, even a folder of images without having to worry about your service provider’s limitations. With Mail Drop, when you send a large attachment, it’s automatically uploaded to iCloud. If your recipients use Mail, they’ll receive the attachment just as they do today. If they use another app or webmail, they’ll receive a link to download it. These past years my ‘attachment policy’ has always been to upload any file bigger than 3 MB on my server or on Dropbox, then send my recipient a link to the file. I like how Mail Drop makes this process automatic and makes you save time when you have to send lots of emails with attachments.

Markup: With Markup you can annotate photos directly within Mail, and you can also handle PDF documents (e.g. filling forms and signing PDFs on the spot). Two observations here: 1. Even with this simple feature we can see how Apple is really focusing on the user’s workflow: instead of doing the annotation work separately on a third-party app and then sending the annotated document, now the process is made quicker and more straightforward because it can be done all from inside Mail; 2. I like how you can mark up an image by using the Mac’s trackpad as a touch interface and this, in turn, makes me wonder: how long before a similar feature appears on iOS? I think it’d be great to have, especially on the iPad.

Safari: As expected, Safari gets the full iOS treatment in Yosemite. From a GUI standpoint, some details don’t convince me much. I’m not sure I like the reduced width of the unified address bar. In the screenshots it reminds me of iTunes’ LCD panel a bit (which is not a compliment). Also, I’m not really sold on Safari’s translucent chrome. It may have some sense on the smaller screen of an iPad, but on a Mac I don’t know if I want to see webpage contents scrolling behind the address bar. I also share Min Ming Lo’s concerns when he writes in his Mac OS X Yosemite Under the Magnifying Glass:

A couple of things in the new Safari do not sit well with me. The toolbar UI elements do not fit nicely into a grid. The traffic light buttons are not perfectly middle aligned but sit somewhere between middle and top aligned. The new tab button is also quite annoying because its placement and size does not fall into a proper grid.

Another important change in the new Safari is that you only see the top level domain of the site you’re on. This change does not affect most people but I personally would like to see the full URL at all times.

Nitpicking apart, Safari brings new features I quite like: smart suggestions; the fact that RSS in the address bar is back (sort of: now you can Subscribe in Shared Links); and the new Tab view is really well done (by the way, the first Web browsers to implement such feature — granted, not this elegantly — were Shiira and Camino a few years back). I remain neutral on the new progress bar, which is now a thin line appearing at the bottom edge of the address bar when a website is loading: on the one hand I find it quite coherent with the general UI; on the other, I still think it should be a little more visible than that.

Continuity

This is the moment in the keynote where things start getting really interesting. First, AirDrop now works between iOS and OS X. I really look forward to using it in a few months, when I’ll hopefully upgrade to an iOS 8-capable iPhone. So far, I haven’t even been able to use AirDrop at all, because it’s not supported on the iPhone 4, and AirDrop on my Mac is useless since I don’t have any other Macs with Mavericks apart from my main MacBook Pro. When I’m able to exchange files via AirDrop between iOS and OS X, I’ll finally get rid of a number of iOS apps I’ve purchased over the years that let me accomplish the same task. (I won’t get rid of all of them, though, since I’ll still need apps like Scotty and Air Sharing to send photos to and exchange documents with my PowerPC Macs wirelessly.)

Then, Handoff: when Federighi introduced this, I really cried Brilliant! out loud. With Handoff, you can pick up on the iPhone or iPad what you were doing on the Mac, and vice-versa. And with Instant Hotspot, the Mac can connect automatically to the iPhone’s personal hotspot when you’re out and about and there isn’t a public Wi-Fi access point available. I like that, when you’re connected to the iPhone, you can see the iPhone’s signal strength and battery indicator right in the Mac’s Wi-Fi menu. Back to Handoff, I really like how the feature is implemented visually. In the demo, when Federighi is composing an email on his iPhone, there is a new ’tile’ appearing on the far left of the Mac’s Dock, a sort of addition with Mail’s icon and an iPhone badge over it. When Federighi switches to the Mac to finish the message, he clicks on that icon and enters Mail, which displays the email at the exact point he left it on the iPhone. When he is on the Mac browsing in Safari, the iPad nearby is aware of the activity, and a little Safari icon appears on the bottom left of the iPad’s lockscreen. To continue browsing on the iPad, Federighi just performs a swipe up, and enters Safari.

Text messages: Currently, when you receive messages from people who are using non-Apple devices (Federighi calls them the “Green bubble friends”), you can see those messages only on your iPhone. Until now. Thanks to OS X Yosemite and iOS 8’s integration, you’ll be able to receive those messages on your Mac, too. Same goes for phone calls: when you receive a phone call, explains Federighi, your Mac gives you the caller ID, and you can even answer using the Mac. And you’ll be able to make a phone call from the Mac as well (e.g. you’re browsing the Web for a restaurant, and when you find it, you can click on their phone number in the search results, and a contextual “Call [phone number]” menu will appear.

Conclusion

Features like these are what makes me love Apple the most. Again, there isn’t anything exactly new under the sun. The first thing that came to mind while watching Handoff in action was webOS’s Touch to Share, but of course what Apple has done is much more advanced and seamless. What’s more, Apple is going in what I believe is the best direction for OS X + iOS. This kind of integration, this focus on ‘continuity’ and workflow means really putting an ecosystem of devices at the user’s service. Some have said that the new centre of today’s digital lifestyle hub is going to be the iPhone. After this WWDC 2014 keynote I’d like to think that the centre is the users themselves, surrounded by (Apple) devices working as assistants and as a team. This makes much more sense than, say, merging OS X and iOS in one single hybrid OS, something that wouldn’t work because operating systems work best when they’re device-specific.

Note also how a lot of this is made possible by finally putting iCloud to good (and full) use. Since its inception, I couldn’t help but think of how crippled iCloud felt, at least from the perspective of someone like me who heavily relies on services like Dropbox, Box, and CloudApp and Simplenote. And not only that: so far iCloud has felt ‘unpredictable’ and ‘obscure,’ to the point that I rarely used it to sync files, and I haven’t even activated iCloud Photo Sharing. So far, I’ve always considered iCloud more like a MobileMe 2.0, if you know what I mean. But when Federighi started talking about iCloud Drive, I knew things were finally looking up.

And this is only the beginning of a new course. I think I can see a common denominator that indicates, more than anything, the nature of Tim Cook’s leadership and style as CEO of Apple: collaboration and cooperation. It started with the company’s internal reorganisation at the executive level. Remember the reasons given for Scott Forstall’s ousting:

So the changes — it’s not a matter of going from no collaboration to collaboration. We have an enormous level of collaboration in Apple, but it’s a matter of taking it to another level. You look at what we are great at. There are many things. But the one thing we do, which I think no one else does, is integrate hardware, software, and services in such a way that most consumers begin to not differentiate anymore. They just care that the experience is fantastic.

(Source: Bloomberg Businessweek)

A lot of developers have already noted how all the new features and tools introduced at the WWDC clearly indicate more openness on Apple’s part, and Apple’s intention to create a more collaborative environment with developers. I think this collaborative attitude ultimately reaches the final users through the synergy of OS X Yosemite and iOS 8. I agree with Eric Jackson, Apple Isn’t A Hardware Or Software Company – It’s An Ecosystem Company, and I think that before long, Apple will be able to provide users with more than a simple ‘digital hub.’ After all I’ve seen introduced at this keynote, the level of user experience Apple is building may become what I like to call a ‘personal infrastructure’ — where applications, services, devices all work (and ‘just work’) in tight integration all the time. Sure, it’s the ultimate lock-in, but if it works great, respects my privacy, and makes me work better, why not?

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!